Australian Civil Liberties Union
ASIO spying on the increase
Shelley Hodgson, Sunday Herald Sun, 29 June 2003
AUSTRALIANS are one of the most spied on people in the Western world, with mail interceptions and telephone taps rising daily.
And civil liberties groups claim new legislation will give ASIO, Australia's main intelligence agency, more power than the FBI in the US and Britain's MI5.
More than 17,000 Australians had their mail investigated, mainly by federal government agencies, last year -- almost 30 times the number checked a decade ago.
Australian police forces are using electronic surveillance at 27 times the per capita rate of their US counterparts. The 2514 court warrants issued for phone taps last financial year -- almost double that issued in the US -- was a tenfold increase in the past decade and a 16 per cent rise on the previous year.
The warrants apply to hundreds of thousands of individual phone calls, and police inspected 733,000 telephone bills, including inward and outward calls. Civil liberties groups claim that level of surveillance makes Australians some of the West's most monitored people.
"I think that if we aren't, we are getting close to it," Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman said.
Liberty Victoria's vice-president, Brian Walters, SC, said the amount of snooping was reaching absurd levels. Greens senator Bob Brown said there was a creeping government incursion into citizens' lives, and many Australians were unaware of the degree of surveillance.
Australian police use more phone taps than Britain, Canada or the combined US federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Those figures do not include ASIO phone taps.
And last financial year almost 60 different government agencies asked Australia Post to disclose information about people's mail – including details of who they were writing to or receiving mail from. A decade ago, there were 695 mail checks, but last year there were 17,210.
The Sunday Herald Sun's figures come from annual reports and a series of Freedom of Information requests.
Now there are fears ASIO's new counter-terrorism powers will permit even more intrusion into citizens' lives. The powers were passed in the Senate last Wednesday night. They give ASIO power to:
DETAIN people for a week for questioning;
APPLY for new warrants after seven days;
PLACE the burden of proof on a suspect to prove they did not have information or records relating to a warrant;
ALLOW penalties of up to five years in jail for those who fail to answer questions accurately.
The Federal Government says the legislation gives ASIO powers to detain and question people believed to have information about terrorist attacks and could help prevent Australians being hurt or killed. But opponents fear innocent Australians could be taken in for questioning.
"The very fact ASIO suspects your friends or your family of somehow being involved (in terrorism) means you can be arrested and held for seven days without anyone knowing where you are," Senator Brown said.
Mr O'Gorman said he believed that, since September 11, fear of terrorism had been exploited to push for greater powers. He said: "The FBI, CIA and MI5 don't have any laws of this sort and haven't asked for any.
"If this sort of law does not exist in the US and UK, and they don't want it, why are we enacting it, with all the civil liberties downsides?"
But Attorney-General Daryl Williams said this week: "This is designed to interrogate people where they are believed to have information relating to terrorism. It's not a system for just detaining somebody. There has to be a justification for the issue of the warrant in the first place."
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